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The Wicker Man (2006)

The Wicker Man

To continue my jaunt through the cinematic realm of Nicolas Cage, today I am going to look at the infamous 2006 remake of The Wicker Man.

The plot of The Wicker Man is summarized on IMDb as follows:

A sheriff investigating the disappearance of a young girl from a small island discovers there’s a larger mystery to solve among the island’s secretive, neo-pagan community.

The Wicker Man is based on an acclaimed 1973 film of the same name starring Christopher Lee. That film was in turn a loose adaptation of the 1967 novel Ritual by David Pinner, though it was not initially formally credited as such. The 1973 film is widely regarded as a horror classic, and stands in sharp contrast to its 2006 remake.

The 2006 version of The Wicker Man was both written and directed by Neil LaBute, who has directed movies like Lakeview Terrace, Nurse Betty, the remake of Death At A Funeral, Possession, and a number of episodes of Hell On Wheels.

The cast of The Wicker Man includes Nicolas Cage (Con Air, Ghost Rider, Face/Off, The Rock, Drive Angry, Leaving Las Vegas, Stolen, National Treasure, Adaptation., Vampire’s Kiss, Snake Eyes), Ellen Burstyn (Requiem For A Dream, The Fountain, Interstellar, The Exorcist, The Last Picture Show), Kate Beahan (The Crocodile Hunter: Collision Course, Flightplan), Frances Conroy (Scent of a Woman, The Crucible, Six Feet Under), and Molly Parker (House of Cards, Deadwood, Hollywoodland).

The cinematographer for The Wicker Man was Paul Sarossy, whose other shooting credits include Charlie Bartlett, The Sweet Hereafter, Chloe, and notable television series like The Borgias and Copper.

The music for the film was composed by Angelo Badalamenti, who is notably a frequent collaborator with David Lynch, scoring such works as Twin Peaks, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart, Lost Highway, and Mulholland Drive. On top of his Lynch credits, Badalamenti provided music for movies like Auto Focus, Christmas Vacation, Cabin Fever, Secretary, The Beach, and A Nightmare On Elm Street 3.

Both Robin Hardy, director of the 1973 The Wicker Man, and Christopher Lee, the film’s star, denounced the poor quality of the film’s remake. In 2011, Robin Hardy directed a sequel to his original film, called The Wicker Tree, which met with a reception almost as bad as the remake he denounced.

The original cut of The Wicker Man got an R-rating from the MPAA. Neil LaBute decided to make some minor changes to get a PG-13 for the theatrical release, in hopes that it would reach a wider audience. Interestingly, when the movie eventually released on DVD as an unrated version, not all of the footage was put back in: roughly four minutes from the original cut didn’t get re-inserted.

Nicolas Cage has claimed that the movie was intentionally made as an absurdist comedy, based on both his and LaBute’s vision. Some critics have agreed that it is a sort of black comedy, though very few who regard it as such think that the comedic elements were done well.

One of the key changes to the screenplay for this remake of The Wicker Man was the addition of the gender dynamic. The island is Summersisle is portrayed as a strict matriarchal system, where men are essentially used solely for breeding and labor.

Also, in the original iteration of The Wicker Man, the island is called “Summerisle”. Apparently, the change of the name to “Summersisle” for the remake was done because it was believed that Americans would have an easier time pronouncing it.

The Wicker Man was made on a production budget of $40 million, on which it took in a lifetime theatrical gross of just under $39 million. The reception to the film, however, was damning. Currently, it holds an IMDb user rating of 3.7/10, and has Rotten Tomatoes scores of 15% from critics and 17% from audiences. It ultimately wound up with a number of Golden Raspberry Award nominations, including for Worst Picture and Worst Actor, but didn’t wind up winning any.

In 2016, Brian Collins of Birth.Movies.Death. wrote an elaborate defense of The Wicker Man, which makes some interesting points:

[The Wicker Man is] unfairly maligned and curiously lambasted for its remake status when the original has its own share of offbeat choices… this was one of the more inspired [remake] choices for a major studio to throw a lot of money at…

the original Wicker Man was a realtively (sic) obscure British film that barely saw release in the US…Warner Bros. wasn’t giving Neil LaBute and Nicolas Cage 40 million dollars to remake a horror movie because they knew fans would show up – they saw potential in this strange tale being retold by these unique talents, regardless of the fact that it had been done before.

Is it a masterpiece? Heavens no.  But I wouldn’t offer the original that high of a compliment, either…I don’t think it’s fair to dismiss the remake outright simply because it’s a big budget movie that played on 2,000 screens instead of this weird little British movie you saw on TV on a late night broadcast.

Collins hits on something in this piece that I noticed a lot when reading through contemporaneous reviews of the film. Over and over again, reviews harped on the movie being an “unnecessary” remake, as if the original was an untouchable fixture that couldn’t be improved. While I understand that the oversaturation of remakes is frustrating, remakes are not inherently bad: sometimes, they bring fresh, new visions to stories. On top of that, I would argue that a remake of The Wicker Man was necessary: it has brought the original movie back into the public consciousness in a big way, and raised it out of obscurity.

All of that said, a bias against remakes combined with rose-tinted nostalgia glasses don’t totally account for the negative reaction to The Wicker Man. Make no mistake, this is a bad movie, and for a litany of reasons.

As mentioned previously, Nicolas Cage has claimed that the vision for the film was always comedic, though absurdist. If that’s the case, something went wrong, and the humor doesn’t come across. People don’t laugh at this because it is inherently comedic, but because it is nonsensical, and punctuated by Cage’s outlandish performance. One critical response to the film (by MaryAnn Johansen of Flick Filosopher) put my feelings on this issue well:

I’d look more kindly on Neil LaBute’s profoundly silly movie… if I thought he meant any of it in jest, if any of it were winking at us even a little.

As much as Cage may claim that the production had comedic intentions from the outset, there are just no signs of those intentions on screen. The tone, the music, the supporting performances, the cinematography: pretty much every element of the film (outside of Cage) is played absolutely straight. While that would certainly be absurd if done with intention, Occam’s razor dictates that it is far more likely that Cage was off the rails on his own tangent with his quasi-comedic performance.

For those same reasons, it is impossible for me to write off the transparently misogynistic themes and portrays in The Wicker Man as satiric or comedic. The thesis of this film is essentially that a matriarchal society is inherently oppressive, and devoid of critical thought. You can almost read LaBute’s thoughts: “Of course a society led women is going to be irrational, right?” It is hard not to imagine Neil LaBute filming sequences of Nic Cage punching women without experiencing an element of catharsis, given the amount of disdain laced through this screenplay. The fact that LaBute alone made the decision to alter the island society from the original film to be a matriarchy is more than a little telling as to his feelings towards women and feminism, and the look isn’t good.

As far as positives go, I have to say that The Wicker Man does look good: if you weren’t paying attention, you might mistake it for an artfully crafted film. Likewise, I like the setting of Summersisle: there is a sense of tension and foreboding to it, which contrasts interestingly with the bright, natural images that make it up. In that way, it isn’t unlike the bees that inhabit it: they are aesthetically pleasing, but dangerous.

While it may be true that critics were harsher to this movie based on its status as a remake, there are more than a handful of problems with it. It bows to countless genre cliches, promotes a misogynistic narrative, and has a bafflingly unfocused tone, and that’s without even touching on the perplexing, erratic performance from Nicolas Cage. It ultimately deserves the derision and ridicule that has been levied at it over the years, despite a few redeeming elements.

Much like Death Bed: The Bed That Eats, The Wicker Man falls in the rare category of bad movies that fancy themselves as art pieces, which carries a uniquely off-kilter tone. It is the sort of movie that you can truly marvel at, and get lost wrapping your brain around just how ill-conceived it was.

As far as a recommendation goes, I think this film’s reputation precedes it. If you think you might enjoy watching this movie, you probably will. Nicolas Cage fanatics are sure to enjoy his zany antics, to say the least, and absolutely have to give it a watch.

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